- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001

American interest in religion may not produce gigantic moneymaking ventures on the Internet, but its presence is likely to keep growing as other sectors of electronic commerce face one crash after another.
The latest indication of such staying power is the $14 million infusion of venture capital into Christianity.com., which this year has as goal of signing up 225 ministries and 2,500 churches for Web sites and other Internet services.
"Most Christian Internet ventures have promoted a portal site, which requires an expensive marketing campaign to drive customers to the site," said David Davenport, head of Christianity.com, which opened in August.
"We are trying to be a quiet network that undergirds existing churches and ministries," he said.
As a network, Christianity.com hopes eventually to become profitable by selling or bartering Internet tools, Web-site construction, fund-raising programs, and links with other groups.
Religion also has increasingly cropped up in e-mail use, Web sites, and "portal" sites, where people go for information and are exposed to advertising.
"We are a utility for all Christians, and if successful, we could be the largest aggregate of churches and ministries," said Mr. Davenport, whose offices are in Hayward, Calif., near Silicon Valley.
The venture, which is in partnership with the Christian Broadcasting Network owner of the "Christianity.com" name is financed mainly by Sequoia Capital, which backed Yahoo and others.
The two other major religion Internet sites both portals are Belief.net, which covers all faiths and spirituality, and Crosswalk.com, mainly for evangelicals.
Galaxy, an Internet directory, put Christianity.com at the top of a "10 best" list for religion. The list also included Belief.net, Catholic.Online, IslamiCity, Torah.net and Hindu Universe.
Last month, a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey reported that 21 percent of Web surfers, or roughly 20 million people, have looked for spiritual or religious information on line.
What's more, eight in 10 churches surveyed had operated a Web site with church information and activities for at least a year and 91 percent reported that e-mail allowed greater communications among members.
"Religion is mainly part of the social story of the Internet, not it's commercial story," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.
"The best thing going for sites such as Belief.net is its ability to bring together people with a flavor of community," he said.
Meanwhile, most people search the Internet for information, he said, and if they don't make a purchase on line, they often will go to the store itself or the church they saw listed.
Belief.net co-founder Steven Waldman was chosen by Time magazine as one of the decade's leading "innovators" in religion.
But while the magazine called his project "the Web's top commercial religion site," it added that "prayers may be needed before it reaches profitability." The site generates revenue by sale of religious items, travel services and Web-design services and will experiment with other offerings.
Despite religion's struggle for a commercial future on the Internet, it has otherwise exploded as a topic since 1996, when Alan Freed pioneered the Houses of Worship Project in Pittsburgh to list the nation's 330,000 congregations.
"Where I'm seeing churches doing more is in expanding their ministries through the Internet," Mr. Freed said. "Back in 1996, churches did not even know what we meant by a Web site."

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